5 Ways to Help Your Kids Manage Conflict
We’ve all been in the situation: our child has a conflict with another child. Perhaps we feel embarrassed or defensive. We intervene and face the children towards each other and tell them to apologize. After they speak the prompted, sing-songy, syrupy-sweet words, “I’m sorr-yyyyy…”, they run off to play again, unfazed. Then we pat ourselves on the back and think, That was easy. Or was it?
Although I spent over 10 years caring for other people’s children in small and large groups, I didn’t realize how much the quick, easy “I’m sorry” bothered me until I became a mother. Most children will do whatever it takes to get back to playing, to escape the uncomfortable situation of being told they’ve caused pain to another. Simply commanding my small daughters to apologize wasn’t getting to the heart of the matter or creating lasting change.
So, I began seeking out ways to handle reconciliation with my children. I wanted their affections stirred towards the Lord rather than the law. How could I shepherd their souls, encouraging them to not just get away with something or say what I wanted to hear but to turn their hearts towards Christ?
The Scriptures say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV)
That means that our (and our children’s) goal with human reconciliation is to draw others to God, where we find ultimate reconciliation. Reconciliation was made real to us by our Savior, who wants to be in relationship with us despite our sin. One definition of reconciliation is actually “bringing together again.” How beautiful! We started out in relationship with God, but even after our sin separates us, we can be brought back together with Him.
In her book, Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, Elyse Fitzpatrick says, “Most of us are painfully aware that we’re not perfect parents. We’re also deeply grieved that we don’t have perfect kids. But the remedy to our mutual imperfections isn’t more law, even if it seems to produce tidy or polite children. Christian children (and their parents) don’t need to learn to be ‘nice.’ They need death and resurrection and a Savior who has gone before them as a faithful high priest, who was a child himself, and who lived and died perfectly in their place. They need a Savior who extends the offer of complete forgiveness, total righteousness, and indissoluble adoption to all who will believe. This is the message we all need. We need the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Children can’t use the law any more than we can, because they will respond to it the same way we do. They’ll ignore it or bend it or obey it outwardly for selfish purposes, but this one thing is certain: they won’t obey it from the heart, because they can’t. That’s why Jesus had to die.”
Our children cannot strive for perfection or to please us perfectly, nor can we expect that from them. I don’t know about you, but knowing that we have “mutual imperfections” has softened me and has actually given me a lot of peace in how I interact with my girls.
So what can we practically do? Here are some ideas I humbly submit to you, my fellow sojourner, as I learn how to better handle reconciliation in my own family:
1. Teach them to help and serve. Reconciliation is not just apologizing and admitting we’re wrong; it’s changing our behavior moving forward. This has been a game-changer in our family: after a child apologizes and asks for forgiveness, we teach them to go a step further by asking the person they hurt, “How can I help or serve you right now?” But this is so against human nature that the offended person is usually taken off-guard when asked this question. One time, my daughter’s friend paused and then responded, “You can help me build back the tower you just knocked down.” Another child smiled back shyly and answered, “Um, you can give me a hug?” Rather than standing their own ground in pride, this step teaches them to draw closer together and “so far as it depends on [them], live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18, ESV)
2. Model humility and kindness. As adults, it’s hard for us to be humble and kind, too. We can say, “I know it’s hard for you to use kind words [or not hit, or stop taking toys from your friend, etc]. It’s hard for me, too, to follow the way Jesus taught us to treat others. Let’s pray right now that Jesus will help both of us to do this better.” Or, “Here’s a way you can use your hands for kindness right now. Let’s think of a kind word you could say to your friend instead.”
3. Give the child time if they’re not ready to reconcile. Sometimes my daughter’s heart is too hardened at that moment to make a right choice, and she needs to be removed from the situation for a bit. I don’t want her just mimicking what she’s “supposed” to say but actually understanding it. Even my toddler sometimes needs to be put in a quiet place by herself for a few moments before she can be in a place to listen and take the steps of reconciliation.
4. Apply Scripture. If we believe that the Word of God is living and breathing, then these words can actively help our children (and us) to choose the right things. Help them memorize the Scripture, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31 NIV) Letting older children practice handwriting by copying the verse can also be helpful in remembering and applying it.
5. Reconcile WITH your children. Perhaps the most important, and most difficult, is admitting to our children when we are wrong and asking for their forgiveness. Many in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation didn’t practice this - parents ruled with an iron fist and said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But we can change this in our generation. Elyse Fitzpatrick says, “We need days of failure because they help humble us, and through them we can see how God's grace is poured out on the humble.” Some of the most beautiful, humbling moments I’ve had with my girls have been talking with them at bedtime, realizing how impatient, disagreeable, or downright ugly I had been. I desperately want my children to know I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect them to be either. Getting to receive their forgiveness and remember we’re on this journey with Jesus together is a joy.
At bedtime the other night after a rough parenting day, I reconciled with my almost three-year-old for some ways I had treated her unkindly. She said, “Yes, I forgive you, Mommy. You didn’t do it on puwpose.” I hugged her tightly. “Well, actually, yes I did, baby girl. But thankfully God isn’t finished with me yet.”